Jaime Lee Moyer is the author of the Delia trilogy (Delia’s Shadow, A Barricade in Hell, and Against a Brightening Sky). Jaime answered some questions about her work and her new novel.
PW: For those readers unfamiliar with you, who is Jaime Lee Moyer?
JLM: I’m a writer, a poet, and a dreamer. A huge part of my childhood, from 7 to 14, was spent living in a housing project in South Central Los Angeles, which by definition was an interesting place for a shy Irish girl to grow up. Books and reading saved me as a kid, and allowed me to escape the unpleasant — okay, rotten — reality that was day to day life. Living there is what taught me to dream and made me a writer.
Chasing dreams got me to the place I am today, with a third book coming out. Getting here wasn’t easy, nor painless, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it.
I have far too many interests and creative hobbies. I love to travel. Most of the time I’d rather listen to others than talk myself.
PW: That third book, which we are going to discuss in particular, is the third book in Delia’s story. Tell our readers about where Delia came from.
JLM: One night I had a dream about a young woman standing next to the tracks in a train station. Steam was billowing all around her, mixing with fog as night fell. This young woman — who turned out to be Delia — was dressed in old-fashioned clothing, her hair was pinned up, and she had on an old-style wide-brimmed hat. She was nervously looking back over she shoulder, watching for the person who had been following her.
I couldn’t get this dream out of my head. Who was this young woman? Why was she in a train station at night? And most important, who was following her and why?
Delia’s name came to me first, then I realized she was being haunted and even though she’d seen ghosts her entire life, this was different. The rest of the first book just fell into my head after that. Books two and three made me work for them.
PW: Delia is the heart of the books. However, the first book is also about Gabriel, and their developing relationship, and his story as well. Where did HE come from?
JLM: Characters who live their lives in a vacuum are flat-out unrealistic to me. You and I, and everyone we know, interact with others every single day. We have friends, family, relationships of one sort or another. Humans are at heart social animals, and even the most introverted, or damaged, among us craves contact or intimacy with another person.
I knew when I started this series that I wanted Delia to have a partner. Not a starry-eyed love interest, not a contrived romance for the sake of romance, and certainly not anyone who wanted to overshadow her.
Gabe grew out of that desire for Delia to have an equal partner. Neither one of them are kids when the books start. They’ve both been damaged by life, both of them have suffered heart-rending loss. Gabe and Delia find their way to each other slowly, and with enormous amounts of hesitation. And once they do find their way to each other, it becomes clear that their talents mesh. I did my best to write them as true equals.
I’ve been criticized for having Delia fall in love with Gabe, as if finding someone worthy of her love weakens her somehow. I’ve been criticized for Gabe treating Delia as an adult and worthy of respect, because everyone knows that men in the 1910s were all raging misogynists.
I’m a firm believer in writing the world you want to see. This is the world I’d like to see.
PW: Speaking of the 1910s. Your novels are set in the 1910s in San Francisco. Why then, and why there?
JLM: I spent most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, and from the very first I knew that’s where Gabe and Delia’s story took place. It’s a beautiful city, full of distinct districts and neighborhoods. And because San Francisco has been around since the Spanish padres founded Mission Delores in 1776, the city is rich in history and different cultures. Having that kind of backdrop to set a story against is a bonus when writing historical fantasy.
What time period to write about was a given for me. The era of the 1910s has fascinated me since childhood. So much happened in those years, and it’s not an exaggeration to say they were truly the beginning of what we think of as the modern age. The Panama Canal opened, making ocean travel faster. Social attitudes were changing, women won the right to vote, labor unions gained a foothold and made life better for the working woman and man, automobiles edged out the horse and buggy — so much changed.
Overshadowing all of that, World War I, aka The Great War, was fought from July 1914 to November 1918. The war effected everyone, even people living far from the battlefields. You could say it was the elephant in everyone’s living room.
PW: The new novel, AGAINST A BRIGHTENING SKY, in particular, grapples with the repercussions of the first world war in terms of the ghosts that flood the lives of Delia and those around her, in particular the fall of the Royal and Noble Houses of Europe. What interested you to tell that part of the WWI story?
JLM: A huge part of the research I did for this series was reading news articles from the 1910s, and looking at thousands and thousands of news photos. The Library of Congress is digitizing their archives and putting them online, which is a tremendous resource. News articles and photographs gave me a sense of what people were thinking about at the time, and what was important to them.
One of the things that hit me almost immediately is that European royalty were the worldwide media celebrities of the 1910s. Silent film stars and different sorts of entertainers showed up too, but photographs of royalty were everywhere, and outnumbered film stars twenty to one. Probably more.
People frequently think the obsession with media stars is new, a somewhat unhealthy fascination that overtook society via the internet. It might be unhealthy, but it’s not new. The papers in the 1910s published photos of the royal’s children, their dogs, their horses, engagement and wedding photos, divorces, documented their funerals, visits to plays, hospitals — every facet of their lives.
The age of empires ended with The Great War. Dynasties that had ruled European nations for centuries vanished, and entire ruling families were murdered, or simply disappeared, their fate unknown. Those who survived could still claim their titles, but any power they had was gone. In many cases, so were their fortunes.
That level of social upheaval and change comes at a very human cost. I wanted to explore a small portion of that cost.
PW: The social upheaval and change you explore also goes on the other end of the spectrum, throughout the three novels. Your contrast of the relatively well off Delia with her more working class compatriots comes off well, I think.
A more stylistic question: Delia’s chapters are 1st person, but you employ 3rd person for other POVs (e.g. Gabe). Why make that choice?
JLM: There are a few choices you make for a novel out of necessity.
When I started DELIA’S SHADOW, I wrote both Gabe and Delia in a close 3rd POV. Gabe’s scenes worked well from the beginning. I had no problem getting into his head.
Each time I tried to write from Delia’s POV in 3rd person — the book stalled dead. Odd as it sounds to anyone who doesn’t write, she just wouldn’t talk to me. The instant I switched to 1st person, the whole book came together.
I don’t think of it so much as a stylistic choice. I had to listen to Delia’s voice in my head. This was the best way to tell this particular story, with these particular characters.
DELIA’S SHADOW was the sixth — maybe the seventh — novel I’d written. There are a gaggle of short stories I’ve written as well, some in 1st person, some in close 3rd. I’ve learned to listen to how a story wants to be told. Fighting my instincts never ends well.
PW: What else did those earlier trunk novels teach you for when Delia finally saw the light of day?
JLM: Every story I’ve ever written has taught me something. The best way for me to learn to write was simply to write more, to make mistakes, fail miserably, and try again.
Having said that, those early attempts taught me to front load conflict and make clear what the stakes are from the beginning. I learned not to start a story too soon, to pay attention to the pacing, the rhythm of sentences and that individual word choice can change the tone of a whole paragraph. I discovered that making readers care about characters is vital.
I learned to trust my instincts, to take risks; to embrace my strengths and never settle for “good enough.”
One does not simply “learn to write” and then you’re done for ever and ever. If you’re doing it right, you keep learning, keep getting better.
PW: Against a Brightening Sky is the capstone to Delia’s story. How did her progression as a character, through the series change from your initial conception? Or did you even have one?
JLM: I had a character arc in mind for Delia from the start. For the most part I stuck to that arc, but there are always surprises along the way. In Delia’s case, most of those were good surprises.
In the first book, she has a lot of — let’s call them talents — and no way to control them. She sees ghosts clearly and can be battered by a spirit’s emotions, even feel how a ghost has died, but she doesn’t have any knowledge of how to protect herself, or how to keep ghosts away from people she cares about. By the end of that book, Delia accepts that she will never have what others think of as as “normal” life. She makes the decision to become Dora’s student, knowing that there is no going back.
Against A Brightening Sky takes place four years later. There’s no question that Delia is the 1910s version of a witch. That’s exactly where I meant to go, from a somewhat naive, unskilled but determined young woman, to a confident and increasingly powerful practitioner of magical arts.
Getting there wasn’t easy, but very little in life is handed to us without requiring some kind of sacrifice.
If anything, Delia ended up stronger than I first envisioned, and more like Isadora than I first thought. Given the close friendship that developed between Delia and Dora, and the teacher/student relationship, I’m not surprised.
PW: Isadora is of course the mentor in the books. Your comment about the friendship — did you always plan it that way? It seemed their relationship was much warmer in the third book, and much more professional, even standoffish, earlier in the series.
JLM: Earlier in the series, Isadora and Delia were still getting to know each other. In the first book they were strangers who discovered they carried the same burden. In the second book — which I think of a a pivot point and the lowest point as well — Delia lost a child, Dora lost her lover and was almost lost herself, and they both lost friends.
I always meant these books to include deep friendships, especially friendships between women. In far too many books women are portrayed as being isolated, or in competition with one another. That’s not how the real world works. Most women I know form networks of one kind or another with other women. In a male dominated, often dangerous world, it’s how women survive. It’s how their children survive.
All the main characters in the Delia and Gabe books are the kinds of friends who will always be there for one another, in good times and in the absolute worst of times. They recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, celebrate their joys together and support one another in time of sorrow.
The deepening friendship between Delia and Isadora was a natural progression of the story. No one else in their lives can peer into the spirit realm, sense death or pain, or knows what dark creatures walk the world. No one else has the power Delia and Dora possess, or carries the responsibility that power brings. There are parts of their lives they can only share with each other.
Even in the midst of loving, supportive relationships, that set them apart. Delia and Dora grew closer to be less alone in the world.
PW: Indeed, Against a Brightening Sky isn’t itself alone, when it comes out on October 6th. Any final thoughts on what it’s like to write and complete a trilogy? Where can readers find out more about you and meet you virtually and otherwise?
JLM: All the books I’d written before Delia’s Shadow were standalone novels. Writing a trilogy taught me a lot about voice, character change and development, and being continuity from one book to the next. Even though each book is a self-contained story, all those things still apply. That’s the technical, professional writer thought. The geeky, emotion thoughts follow. I’m not going to claim these thoughts are entirely rational. Knowing I’m going to have three — three!! — books out in the world is an odd combination of wonder and terror, and proof dreams can come true, and oh yeah, terror. I’m not a rockstar writer, I slide under a lot of people’s radar, but there are readers who love my books. The wonder comes from knowing that people read what I’ve written, and want to read more. The terror comes from not ever wanting to disappoint them. I spent over four years of my life with these characters. Leaving them behind is both surreal and bittersweet.
Thank you so much, Jaime!